A book on bees explains that the biggest difference between a human’s life and a bee’s is the constant darkness of the hive.
The “darkness” of this chapter could refer to Lily’s ignorance, but also to the isolated, “hive-like” community of the Boatwrights’ house.
The chapter is focused on Lily and Rosaleen’s first week with August and her sisters. During this time, Lily is in a state of bliss: she’s free from her father, and August never asks her about her supposedly dead parents. August takes care of Rosaleen, saying that Lily and Rosaleen can earn their stay later by working in the honey room. May teaches Lily a song about bees, which Lily enjoys singing. Lily quickly learns that life among the Boatwrights revolves around honey. They eat it with every meal, use it as a medicine, and, of course, make it all day long. Lily makes beeswax into candles and shoe polish, earning her keep.
In this expository section, we see how the Boatwright house works. August makes honey all day long, and because she owns her own beehives, she has a steady source of income, and isn’t dependent on anyone else in the world. This financial freedom allows her to dictate the terms of her own life and remain relatively aloof from the racist society she lives in. It’s unclear (for now) why August automatically invites Lily and Rosaleen to stay with her, except that she seems naturally hospitable and generous.
Rosaleen befriends May, who’s very simpleminded. She spends much of her time catching spiders and eating bananas. June teaches English in a local black high school. One night, Lily overhears June and August talking about her: June says she knows Lily is lying about her dead parents. August agrees, but says that they should take care of them, anyway. June is frustrated with August, but she agrees to allow Lily and Rosaleen to stay for a little while longer. She tells August, “But she’s white.” Lily is shocked when she hears this—August and June are judging her for her skin color, something she’s not used to.
The two other Boatwright sisters contribute to the independence and happiness of the Boatwright house in their own ways. The fact that Lily is horrified at being “judged” for her skin color shows just how naïve she is. She has just seen white men beat Rosaleen almost to death with the approval of the police, and yet can’t seem to understand why a black woman might be naturally distrustful of a white person. These instances of Lily putting herself in a black person’s “shoes” are small and rather feeble, but they show her personal growth as she gains more understanding and empathy.
Every evening, Lily and Rosaleen eat dinner with the Boatwrights while watching the news on TV. They learn that blacks are being murdered across the country for registering to vote and protesting racism. One night, after watching a news story about a black man who was shot in Georgia, May goes to the bathtub to cry, and her sisters comfort her gently.
May soaks up the tragedies she experiences like a sponge: whether she has a personal connection to the tragedy or not, she weeps. Whatever her mental troubles are, it seems that she lacks the “filter” most people have in deciding what to care about and what not to care about. Many of the tragedies May weeps for are connected to racism in America—her sadness is like a personification of the tragedy of the black experience in America.
At night, everyone kneels before the 3-foot statue—a statue of the Virgin Mary—and prays. Lily is confused when the Boatwrights call the statue, “Our Lady of Chains.” August explains that she and her sisters have made their own religion, combining Catholicism with elements of their own beliefs.
Once again, Kidd suggests that the “good” characters in her novel make their own religions, rather than adhering to a strict, dogmatic church. The black Virgin Mary wasn’t just a sign leading Lily to the Boatwrights—she is at the center of life in the Boatwright house.
One evening, August tells Lily a story. In the story, a young nun decides to leave her convent to explore the world. Right away, Lily can tell that the story is supposed to be about her. August continues: the nun spends years wandering the world, and is always miserable and lonely. Then, at the end of her life, she returns to her convent, where she is shocked to find that the Virgin Mary has been “standing in” for her. Lily doesn’t understand what this story is supposed to mean. She guesses that August wants to convince her to go back to her home.
This book is full of parables: ambiguous stories, often with a religious bent, which one must contemplate to understand. At this point in the novel, Lily (wrongly) guesses that August is using her parable to urge Lily to return to her home. The fact that Lily interprets an ambiguous parable in this way suggests that Lily herself may be having second thoughts about her decision to run away—she’s a little guilty for abandoning her father.
A week has passed since Lily and Rosaleen came to the Boatwrights’ house. That evening, August shows Lily how the queen bees lay their eggs. August “introduces” Lily to the queen bee, and shows her the honey the queen helps to produce. As they laugh and talk, Lily thinks to herself that she wants to convince August to let her live there forever.
Lily seems to adjust easily to her life with the Boatwrights. Because she didn’t have a mother growing up, she’s never been an environment where women dominate: essentially, she’s gone from having no mother to having three or four mothers at once.
Lily asks August about the stone wall with the pieces of paper, and August explains that May pushes a piece of paper into the wall whenever a tragedy occurs. August explains that May’s twin sister, April, died at the age of 15. She shot herself with her father’s shotgun after learning that she’d never be able to have a normal life in her racist South Carolina town. Afterwards, May become “strange.”
The more we learn about the Boatwright house, the less idyllic it becomes—or rather, the more impressive it becomes that August and her sisters can support themselves. Like May, April was extremely sensitive to other people’s tragedies, and to the huge collective tragedy of racism.
Lily goes to bed in the honey house, and thinks about her parents, especially her mother. Rosaleen, who’s sleeping in the honey house as well, asks Lily if she’s all right. When Lily doesn’t reply, Rosaleen tells her that Deborah is dead, and is never coming back. She adds that she doesn’t want to see Lily get herself hurt. Lily gets up and finds a piece of paper. She writes her mother’s name on the paper and slips it into the stone wall. Lily wonders what she should do next, and decides to find out as much as she can about Deborah before T. Ray or the police find her.
As the chapter ends, we get a better sense for what the stone wall symbolizes: it represents the accumulation of all the suffering and tragedy in the world, and also a way of dealing with that suffering. Lily tries to come to terms with her own guilt and sadness over her mother’s death by imitating May and slipping a note into a crack in the wall. This is a symbolic way for May and Lily to “let go” of their problems—but it doesn’t make them go away.